Monday, June 17, 2019

the military-entertainment complex, or, Why I called the book "Shock and Awe"

wrote this in early 2001, reflecting on my unfaves and overrateds of 2000, and discussing in particular the beginnings of a disappointment with recent R&B for both its rhythmic stagnation and the fact that ultimately it was just "showbiz-with-a-beat":

"It's sort of a cross-the-board antipathy that goes from R&B to all the white-out teen-oriented versions of blackpop from Britney to the legion of boy bands.... As pop music goes, on a certain level, it's irresistible... but mainly in the sense that a conquering army subjugating all in its path can be said to be hard to resist.

"The remorseless, ruthless, invincible precision with which this vidpop is programmed, edited, choreographed, groomed... definitely verges on the militaristic. And the "artists" involved, whether it's Aguilera or Aaliyah or whoever, are like figments spun into existence by squadrons of technicians *--make up artists, hair stylists, lighting crews, postproduction special effects, recording engineers who tint and pitchshift the vocals, chop up the best takes down to single words and re-stitch them together... The amount of energy and effort and money and micro-management that goes into one 2 second shot in a video, or one bar of the record, it's staggering... 

"These stars are cartoons, robots, ciphers, logos, branding devices.... and while I suppose there's a sort of Baudrillardian hyper-real/posthuman/simulation-pop buzz to it... I dunno, is it backward of me to prefer the early Eighties New Pop era? Where there was a striving for glamour yet at the same time the charm of all-too-evident flaws and fallibility and untampered, untreated fleshly reality-- I'm thinking of Altered Images or Human League... or going back further, Marc Bolan (who, with just a mane of corkscrew curls and some glitter on his cheekbones, was more otherworldly and alien than any of today's digitally enhanced popstars). 

"This faux-animation element to modern vidpop, the way that the choreography and film techniques are designed to make humans move in ways that resemble the characters in videogames, is why you've got this spate of pop groups taking the next logical step and hiding themselves behind cartoons: Gorillaz, Daft Punk's anime-style promos and robot shtick. William Gibson's Idoru--the purely computer-generated star-as-figment--is just around the corner."

That bit led me (eventually!) to Shock and Awe - both the project and the book title ** 

This next part of the unfaves section from early 2001 is one of the first steps on the path to Rip It Up and Start Again. (This would be another key earlier step).

"I'm also, gotta admit, starting to feel a certain intellectual exhaustion with the whole rhythm-as--the-star, rhythm-as-melody approach. When everything else about a record sucks--the song, the star, the cultural ramifications--maybe a "dope beat" alone ain't sufficient. Rhythm, melody, lyrics, compelling persona.... It's not entirely unprecedented to have the whole package: Sly Stone, Prince, P-Funk... there's even a few white examples I can't be bothered to list.

"Perhaps what I'm imagining in the back of my brain is some kind of eventual revolt against the utter victory of "black" musical values (rhythm-and-production as more important than song/lyrics; nouveau riche/aspirational, licking-the-arse-of-the-status-quo lyrics/attitudes) and the return with a vengeance of rock pretentiousness/bohemianism. Simon Biddell has been banging on about "vision" as a concept that needs to be reintroduced to the critical lexicon---the idea of being transported, by music as well as by lyrics and charisma, into an individual's very particular view of the world---and citing the likes of Beefheart, Mark E. Smith, Sly Stone, Peter Hammill as exemplars. And in a lot of ways I kind of concur, if only out of boredom, desire for an all-change: a massive movement of sonically over-reaching and lyrically over-ripe art rock would be just the ticket right now. (Some would say that's what the best of modern hip hop is anyway--today's art rock--and maybe they're right--which reminds me, you gotta hear the Cannibal Ox album). 

"Of course, as Biddell concedes, the idea of "vision" leads back down the perilous path towards auteur theory, the expressionist fallacy, and so forth... But maybe it doesn't have to be so backward: Radiohead, for instance, have shown that you can have the vision thing and the riddim thing at the same time. PiL, Roxy Music, Can, Joy Division---all utterly bang-up to date rhythm-and-production wise, all utterly vision-ary. And there was this great moment in the late Seventies/early Eighties, when people tried to fuse punk and disco, "white" and "black" in really suggestive ways. How did we ever learn to settle for less, adapt to the split consciousness of liking parts of things but not the whole?"

* more developed version of this argument in this Aaliyah piece

** the historical origins of "shock and awe" in military theory as the strategy of rapid dominance

"military-entertainment complex" = a coinage of Bruce Sterling

in S+A the element added to the conception of the military-entertainment complex is the notion of propaganda - the idea that advertising is propaganda for corporations and brands, that PR (or management hustle) is propaganda for performers/entertainers/artistes etc etc.

it struck me suddenly that people talk of a publicity campaign  or advertising campaign or press campaign, in the same way that people talk of a military campaign or a political campaign -  campaign: operation of an army in the field, from "champagne", open country

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